MEXICO CITY – Opium poppy plantations cover tens of thousands of acres in Mexico, concentrated in nine states along the Pacific coast, including Guerrero, Sinaloa and Nayarit.
It’s the main source of livelihood for thousands upon thousands of families there, opium being at the core of many drugs that are exported to the U.S. – especially heroin, whose consumption is rising to epidemic proportions.
But back in western Mexico, every time the army pulls a petal off of a poppy flower these towns take it as an attack on their farmworker lifestyle, on their safety, and on their fragile pocketbooks. So when earlier this year the governor of Guerrero proposed making it legal for farmers to produce opium poppies for limited purposes, the idea sent waves across the thousands of families.
Mexico supplies at least 50 percent of the heroine sold in the United States.
According to DEA estimates from 2014, that year Mexico’s annual production was 42 metric tons of heroin, with 17,000 hectares growing poppy. And in the last couple of years, cultivation has all but increased.
Two weeks ago, Mexico and the United Nations announced the results of a new study that estimates opium poppies were planted on about 24,800 hectares in Mexico between 2014 and 2015 – findings government officials say they are using to try to help the impoverished farmers who grow the crop.
Just in the state of Guerrero, which yields some 60 percent of the national production, about 1,300 towns are economically depending on it.
But they pay with the high price of violence.
“As the heroin market keeps growing, the U.S. continues to ask Mexico to get rid of crops, to arrest people, to keep illegal drugs out of that country,” said Luis de la Barreda Solórzano, a researcher from the Institute of Judicial Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “And this means more bloody consequences for Mexico,” he added.
The idea of legalizing drugs in Mexico became a hot topic last October, when the Supreme Court ruled that the parents of 8-year-old Graciela Elizalde (who has Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome) were allowed to import marijuana-based medication, which reduces her epileptic convulsions by up to 80 percent.
Not long afterward came the calls to legalize the cultivation of opium poppy, making morphine and other products accessible to the public for health-related purposes.
“To me it’s like growing corn or beans, only with higher profits, and if it is legalized, it would be a crop we’re familiar with,” said Antonio Mojica, who lives in Guerrero, to Fox News Latino.
According to a proposal presented by the Ministry of the Interior in November 2015, in Mexico there is a yearly demand for 19,764 kilograms of opium-based medications. However, the report claims, in 2013 only 482 kilograms were available – meaning that almost 98 percent of demand is not being met.
“Mexico is the second largest opium poppy producer in the world, and yet we have not been able to legalize it like in other countries,” said former lawmaker Fernando Belauzarán.
“On the contrary, whenever the army finds a patch, it is under the obligation to destroy it,” he added. “Even so the legislators are not willing to discuss it.”
In the U.S. black market, a kilo of heroin is sold for as much as $70,000, yet very little of the profit trickles down to the bottom of the production chain: the farmers.
A report by District Attorney’s office of Guerrero shows that farmers earn about $700 per hectare every four months, which is the length of the production cycle; the rest of the profit goes to the criminal gangs that transport the heroine across the border into the United States.
Still, many say allowing poppy cultivation and legalizing drugs would not put a stop to the violence in Mexico.
José Antonio Ortega, president of the Citizen’s Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, said, to him, the discussion pointless and misleading.
“The problem here is impunity; it makes no difference whether opium poppy is legalized or not,” he said. “Organized crime will continue fighting for control of certain zones, carrying out homicides, kidnappings, extortion and robbery.”
Gardenia Mendoza is a freelance reporter in Mexico City.